An election in the wilderness



The week concludes with a dose of drama in the Republican party. But it can hardly be called a festive occasion, given the bleak mood of the party regulars. Just the other day, conservative strategist and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said that the GOP "is in serious danger of slipping into oblivion."

And yesterday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who last November was forced to weather a long election night in Kentucky before he eking out his win, confessed to members of the Republican National Committee that the GOP has lost huge chunks of the electorate on its way into the wilderness: "We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us. And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one. In politics there's a name for a regional party, it's called a minority party."

I't's on that cheerful note that the 168 voting members of the Republican National Committee will today elect a new national chairman, somebody who presumably can unite the troops and march them into a better future. (Late afternoon update: heading into the sixth ballot, the RNC members still haven't settled on a winner.)

The problem is, none of the candidates look like unifiers - which is why the contest today has already gone to multiple ballots. Some candidates are popular with the conservative base, but won't resonate with the broader electorate - namely, those voters who "seem to have more or less stopped paying attention." Others are moderates (at least by GOP standards) who don't resonate with the base.

If a majority of the 168 RNC members decide to give current chairman Mike Duncan a new term, they'll send a "status quo" message that the party is resistant to change, that it prefers to stick with the guy who presided over the '08 debacle after being handpicked for the job by George W. Bush. (Late afternoon update: It's not Duncan, he dropped out.)

If they choose former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, they'll definitely send a "change" message (particularly because Steele is African-American), but the conservative base won't be happy, because they consider Steele too moderate in his politics. Plus, he hails from deep-blue Maryland, where he sometimes trashed Bush during his unsuccessful '06 Senate race. (Late afternoon update: It might be Steele, he's leading after five ballots.)

If they choose former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell (another African-American), they'll please the religious right, which loves the guy. There's a big religious-right contingent among the RNC members. But party moderates fear that, as a national spokesman, he'd be too conservative for the independent swing voters. (Update: He's out.)

If they choose Saul Anzius, the current Michigan GOP chairman, they might well benefit on the nuts-and-bolts front. Anzius is big on technology (he announced his bid on Twitter), and on the need for the GOP to close that gap with the Obama Democrats. He has a goatee and rides a Harley, which means he wouldn't look like the stereotypical GOP chairman. But he's probably a long shot, in part because many conservatives suspect he might be too different; besides, he hails from blue-state Michigan. (Update: He's out, too.)

If they choose Katon Dawson, the current South Carolina GOP chairman, they'd please many in the southern wing of the party - which, at the moment, is the only wing that's flapping. But he might well perpetuate the party's all-white regional image, given the fact that, until quite recently, he was a member in good standing of an all-white country club. That would be the headline if he wins. (Late afternoon update: Dawson is trailing Steele by a modest margin. Electing a southern white guy to lead the GOP...hey, that would be quite a stretch.)

And if they choose Chip wait, Saltsman dropped out last night - a smart move, since he reportedly had lined up zero RNC votes. Apparently too many Republicans were embarrassed by his recent decision to circulate the song "Barack The Magic Negro" to friends and colleagues as a holiday gift.

We're expected to learn the identity of the lucky winner later. If the RNC members wind up deadlocked, short of the magic number of 85 votes, they can probably give the job to Rush Limbaugh and be done with it. Limbaugh has a bigger megaphone than any of those prospective chairmen. The radio sage has issued a call to arms, declaring that Americans should not "bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever," just because President Obama's "father was black."

On the other hand, maybe that's not the kind of message Republicans are looking for.


These Obama White House players are quite clever. They're reportedly weighing the idea of asking New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg to join the Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. For Democrats, that would be quite a chess move:

Gregg is a long-serving Republican in a state rapidly going Democratic; he could face a tough re-election battle in 2010. That means raising lots of money and expending a whole lot of energy, perhaps in a futile cause. By contrast, the Commerce gig would be high-profile, with no electoral pressures, at a time when economic issues predominate. Already there are reports that he might be tempted. And if he leaves the Senate, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire might well get to name a Democratic replacement. That would give the Democrats 59 seats...and 60 when Al Franken presumably prevails over Norm Coleman in the latter's desperate legal appeal.

And 60 is the magic number that would bar the Senate Republicans from blocking Obama with procedural snarls.

That wilderness is sure looking dark at the moment.


Quote of the week:

Cable TV interview transcripts arrive daily via email; typically, I scan and delete. But one remark this week bears repeating. In an interview on CNBC, John Thain, the now-disgraced former master of the universe who presided over the downfall of Merrill Lynch, was asked why in the world he spent $1 million to redecorate his office (complete with $1400 trash can), at a time when salaries were being cut and his workers were being axed.

Thain's response was that he didn't like his predecessor's taste. Here it is, verbatim: "Well (pause) his office was very different, than, the, the general décor of Merrill’s offices. It really would have been very difficult for me to use it in the form that it was in."

To rebut the likes of Thain, let's conclude for now with a dose of Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his first inaugural address, in 1933:

"(T)he rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence...Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision, the people perish...There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live."


I riffed on a number of other political topics earlier today on Philadelphia NPR's "Radio Times." The hour-long segment is archived here.